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Suspend Your Skepticism and Just Listen

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It's simply no good to surround yourself with people who only think exactly like you and never challenge your thoughts and views. You never grow or understand much beyond your own circle. As I said in my last piece, a whole new way of seeing the world opened up when I expanded outside my tiny worldview and explored other explanations for paranormal or mysterious phenomena.

I've been circulating in the Skeptisphere for a good long while. But I have not forgotten the value of being challenged and seeing alternative views. This draws me to paranormal conferences and events. I go there to be immersed in highly unskeptical ideas. It is immediately clear, to me at least, that I am out of my comfort zone at these events. I do not feel free to talk to anyone lest they determine I am not of their "ilk" and decide I should be shunned. But I am curious, and no one berates me for wanting to listen and observe. What is it about the paranormal culture that draws people here? Why is this population of people happy to spend a weekend engaged in these particularly paranormal activities, listening to speakers and making new friends?

In mid-March, I attended the Phenomenology conference in Gettysburg. The theme was zombies (as the perfect metaphor for any social problem that frightens us at any point in time), but the emphasis was on being with 500 other paranormal investigators and enthusiasts and sharing interests.

I sat through as many lectures as I could from Thursday evening until Saturday night. I heard John Zaffis and family talk to a packed room about their TV show, Haunted Collector. Investigators spoke about their research into the Bridgewater Triangle mystery area of Massachusetts, mysterious flying monsters of U.S., and the history of nightmare creatures like the Old Hag and Tooth Fairy. I LOVE that stuff.

Long suffering ghost hunters told of their evolution in learning different techniques, being disappointed, but also having astounding experiences. Josh Gates of the Destination Truth TV show, an intrepid traveler if I've ever seen one, told incredible tales about adventures in far off places. I can't imagine ever being that daring. Travis Walton described his iconic experience in the remote forests of Arizona decades ago that he has interpreted as an alien abduction event.

I suspend my criticality as best I can and just listen closely. The people in the seats next to me are star struck by some of the paracelebs. These conferences have a strong component of fan admiration. I admit I am not entertained by sitting through a Q&A session where the same boring and rather silly questions are asked of the people on stage. I rarely ask questions and never ones so general. They are here to satisfy their fans, and I can't really consider myself a "fan". I have to look up who half the speakers are.

Many (I'd even say most) of my skeptical friends have zero interest or tolerance for these paranormal-themed events. I don't think they could hold back their disdain for what they would see as magical thinking, shoddy logic and obliviousness to reality. Similar could be said for paranormalists who would decry the unemotional and deconstructive clinical thinking, the extreme logic, and the staunch naturalism of the skeptical outlook. I'd like to think I'm in the middle but in order to stay there, I have to engage with both sides. So I make myself ask questions to the people in the vendor area. I'm surprised by the frank answers I get; people are quite open. For example, one person selling ghost hunting gadgets told me, "The blinking lights are a crowd pleaser. People expect to see that."

As I sat down in one morning session, a family related their experience during a ghost hunt the night before. A small group paid for access to the privately owned historical Civil War headquarters of General Lee. During their visit, as the group attempted to connect with any remnant souls there, the woman explained that her daughter felt as if she was being choked and had to leave. The two others in the family also experienced difficulty breathing shortly thereafter and exited the facility at which time they quickly recovered. During the weekend, others had noted that they also had past experiences of feeling choked or gagged during various site investigations. It was a harrowing experience for them and they could not explain it except in paranormal terms. They were clearly disturbed by this. How does the skeptic explain it - other than that the hands of the dead grasped their throats in an attempt to exact revenge upon the living or to make them leave? I can't say. I wasn't there. It was not my experience.

What I can say is that no one has shown that an invisible, incorporeal entity is actually doing it. We do know, however, that anxiety can create physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing. And, many other conditions can cause coughing, gagging or a feeling of tightening or discomfort around the neck and chest. Also, we know that behavior of one person in a group can prompt similar sympathetic reactions in the rest of the group. This is known as mass psychogenic illness or conversion disorder. Some combination of these non-paranormal options are my guess as to what happened but my opinion doesn't matter since the individuals have their own interpretation and didn't ask me what I thought the explanation was.

Imagine the worldview of those who accept that such interactions between people and spirits are possible. They see everything around them with this filter. Therefore, nothing is a coincidence. The other world is right there next to us. We can reach out and touch it. And, they touch us. (Well, not me.)

People who berate paranormal believers really ought to consider how emotionally affected are those who have had their own unexplained and frightening episodes. You might stop calling them silly and weak-minded. They are human and these are human experiences.

There are very closed-minded skeptics who jump to a conclusion too quickly and stick fast to it. There are closed-minded paranormalists who can not see the answer in front of their face. I admit, it was difficult at times to not roll my eyes at the very obvious explanation to some of these "mysteries". There was simply no point in bringing up those topics because it was not my turn to talk, it was my job to listen.

I strongly suggest that skeptics attend such events at least once WITHOUT their skeptic hat on, just as an observer. I'd also suggest that paranormalists take a peak at the skeptical viewpoints. I guarantee both will be left uncomfortable and rather drained from the experience but if you truly look and listen and eschew the need to engage for a time, you will be more enlightened in the human condition.